Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority who has probably spent more hours negotiating with Israelis than anyone, once called the Holocaust a “fantastic lie.” Yasser Arafat, in his heyday as an itinerant terrorist before he showed up on the White House lawn, described Jews as "dogs" and "filth." Former Secretary of State James Baker, who set the stage for the 1993 Oslo Accords, once reportedly muttered, "They didn't vote for us [the Republicans]," so "f--- the Jews."
And now it’s Mohamed Morsi’s turn. In a video from 2010 that has gone viral, the Egyptian president, who was then head of the Muslim Brotherhood, referred to "Zionists" as "bloodsuckers who attack Palestinians" as well as "the descendants of apes and pigs."
The reflexive response of many in the pro-Israel community was predictable: See? Didn’t we tell you? This just shows how impossible it is to deal with these people. Whatever hopes Obama’s incoming (if not yet confirmed) secretary of State, John Kerry, had for restarting peace talks in a region he has long had a passion for—the Mideast—will not likely be realized, at least with Morsi playing the broker.
But this is an overreaction. Yes, there’s every reason to think Morsi still believes what he said, despite the effort of the Egyptian government to explain his remarks away. (And with an almost comical version of a classic Washington locution too: Morsi’s comments were “taken out of context,” his spokesman, Yasser Ali, said.) No doubt Morsi hates Jews and wishes Israel would sink into the sea. There’s every reason to think Abbas, in his heart of hearts, hates Israelis too.
But these sentiments are really all but irrelevant to diplomacy and peacemaking. Many a peace plan has papered over deep and abiding hatreds between peoples, subordinating those sentiments to larger interests. The hatred doesn’t go away; it just becomes … inoperative. Morsi’s Egypt is a case in point. As president, Morsi has already begun to edge ideologically toward what would have been unthinkable, if he remained just a leader of the Brotherhood: accepting the existence of Israel. How? Because Morsi pledged to President Obama that he will observe the Egypt-Israel peace treaty (the 33-year success of which is itself an example of how a “cold peace” can neutralize old hatreds). And Morsi knows that Obama is not without leverage—including some $1.5 billion in foreign aid and promises of debt relief—at a time when he has pledged to revive Egypt’s impoverished economy and link it up to the global system.
Professional diplomats know this, as do the smartest politicians. As president, Bill Clinton loved to quote martyred Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s words: “You don’t make peace with your friends.” Rabin’s visible distaste at shaking hands with Arafat at the White House in 1993 was itself an eloquent expression of this very idea. (And Rabin, after all, was just paraphrasing Moshe Dayan, who said “If you want to make peace, you don't talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.”)
The real master of this game was the late diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who in his brilliant memoir about his peace efforts in Yugoslavia, To End a War, criticized the fatalistic idea “that nothing could be done by outsiders in a region so steeped in ancient hatreds.” Holbrooke brought a handful of players who wished for nothing more than each other’s extinction to the table at Dayton in 1995, and a shaky peace has outlived many of the worst actors, especially Slobodan Milosevic.
Holbrooke’s widow, the writer Kati Marton, wrote in an e-mail on Wednesday: “He never stopped talking about this subject! He did not believe in the whole ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’ notion, he absolutely denied the inevitability of conflict between rival groups. 'We don't have to make them love each other!’ he used to say. ‘Just get them to tolerate each other's right to exist in the same neighborhood.’ "
Holbrooke often cited the examples of the Flemish and Walloons coexisting in Belgium, the Germans and French with their bloody history of conflict leading to two world wars, and the long conflicts between the Irish in the north and south, Marton said. “All finally relented and learned to coexist because they had to,” she said. And “what he absolutely believed was that the U.S. had to play a central role in getting these ‘badly behaved children’ to behave better.”
True, at the moment, the obstacles to restarting Mideast peace talks look all but insurmountable. Hamas, a Muslim Brotherhood offspring, has consistently refused to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist; that stance, along with the group’s continued sponsorship of terrorist attacks, has resulted in a permanent standoff in which neither Israel nor Hamas will negotiate with each other.
But as much as Obama wants to leave Mideast quagmires behind him, peace was, after all, one of his 2008 campaign pledges, an effort that he appeared to have botched with fumbling attempts to pressure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2009. John Kerry badly wants a legacy of his own. “Kerry has amassed an encyclopedic knowledge of the Middle East—often putting him ahead of his potential future boss on the region's urgent crises,” his biographer, historian Alan Brinkley, has written. And if the U.S. pushes Morsi, and Morsi “wants to try, Palestinian leaders can't afford not to play along” and perhaps even forge an elusive unity government, former U.S. Mideast negotiator Aaron David Miller writes. “Hamas needs Cairo to open up Gaza economically and to exert pressure on Israel. Abbas knows there's no going back to the good old days with [former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak, but he too wants to stay on Egypt's good side. And so unity talks will start, stop, start again, and perhaps even result in a formal accord.”
And Mohamed Morsi could still be the fulcrum of peace in the Mideast. He may be the only Arab leader who can talk to both Israel and Hamas at the same time. For the present, he is the key figure both in setting the direction of Egypt—whether as a legitimate participatory democracy or retrograde dictatorship—and in possibly brokering something more enduring than a mere ceasefire between Hamas and Israel.